Book review: ‘In Pursuit of Faithfulness’
In 1957 in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, communion was only served when a bishop was present. The bread and cup were reserved for church members who were deemed in good standing. This practice of “close communion” was soon to be challenged by an energetic and creative Mennonite minister and his small mission congregation at the far edges of the conference.
Grand Marais Mennonite Church was planted on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The congregation was part of a midcentury church-planting wave. In 1948 the conference sent Willard Handrich — who had been a smoke jumper with Civilian Public Service during World War II — and his wife, Mary, to Grand Marais to start a church community.
The Mennonite congregation in Grand Marais was the only Protestant church with a minister who lived in the town. The Handrich family developed strong relationships with their neighbors, and Handrich nurtured a congregation that was both strongly Mennonite in its identity and something of a community church.
Among the people Handrich considered part of the flock was a woman who had moved to Detroit, where she met her husband and joined a Baptist congregation. The couple frequently returned to Grand Marais, where they had a cabin. When they were in town, they attended the Mennonite fellowship.
The couple was in worship one Sunday in 1957 when communion was served. In keeping with conference rules, the visiting bishop excluded them from the Lord’s Supper. The woman spent the rest of the service crying outside the church.
Handrich had favored open communion for at least a decade. Now he became an advocate. For a time, he suspended communion services due to disagreements with his bishop. “The fence we have put up seems to hold people out better than it holds people in,” Handrich wrote the conference executive committee. “If Christ came for his church tonight, I would expect these people to go with me, and there is the crux of my burden.”
The impasse at Grand Marais wasn’t resolved until 1961, when conference leaders visited the congregation to investigate. Finding a leader with strong commitments to nonresistance and other Mennonite understandings of faith, and a vibrant faith community seeking to engage its neighbors in “unique circumstances,” they decided to make an exception. They granted Handrich permission to serve communion himself and to include whomever he felt appropriate, despite Indiana-Michigan’s continued official position.
The compromise was one step in a significant shift in polity away from a centralized bishop system. A minister was now encouraged to discern faithful practice in his context and was granted powers that had until then been reserved for bishops.
The conflict over communion is just one of many in the life of the conference as told in the newly published comprehensive and engaging conference history by Rich Preheim, In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. Persistent conflict and change is a recurring theme in this volume. In these accounts we hear echoes in current conflicts playing out across the church.
Preheim’s excellent 420-page work was published in time to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Indiana-Michigan Conference. The current conference was formed in 1916 when progressive Amish Mennonites and “Old” Mennonites from the region merged their efforts.
Preheim begins this history with an account of Amish and Mennonite settlements in the region in the 1840s, shortly after the forcible removal of Native American communities. He carries the story forward to 2001, when four regional Mennonite conferences decided not to form one large Great Lakes conference. An epilogue briefly addresses developments of recent years.
While Preheim focuses on one area conference, his book is also a history of the broader Mennonite church. A central motif is that Indiana-Michigan leaders and congregations, with the movements and institutions they birthed, have dramatically shaped the broader church. From publishing and education to mission and mutual aid, from John F. Funk to Wilma Bailey, the region’s leadership and influence has reverberated across North American Mennonite life.
Some may ask: Why read a history of an area conference? Or even engage in the life of an area conference? The area conference’s role may seem less clear than that of a congregation or denomination. Congregations are where faith is nurtured weekly, where leaders are formed and witness is practiced. Denominations have high visibility, can set agendas and allocate financial resources.
What about area conferences? Conference leaders have relationships with local congregations and national leaders, as well as with counterparts across the system. They can network, encourage and support grassroots spiritual entrepreneurs, risk-takers and activists. They can be a bridge between local creativity and denominational initiatives and resources. Area conferences have a broader reach than congregations but more flexibility and room for taking risks than denominational structures.
At times, however, especially times of anxiety and stress, area conferences are mired in negative patterns of conflict, largely maintain and manage old structures and are not able to create capacity or energy for initiatives of imaginative witness.
Preheim has opened up for us the history of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, which provides stories of creativity as well as times of difficulty that are instructive as we envision the church of the future.
André Gingerich Stoner is director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.
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